A group of people working at their computers in a lab.

People with diabetes can be affected by diabetic retinopathy (DR), where high blood sugar levels can lead to sight loss. The magnitude and extent of retinal damage before loss of visual function can be detected is currently unknown. We’re funding research which will use imaging and visual assessment tests to determine if DR can be detected earlier.

The challenge

The retina is a layer of tissue at the back of the eye which contains light sensitive cells called rods and cones. In diabetic retinopathy, high blood sugar levels can lead to damage of the blood vessels in the retina, which in turn damages the rods and cones. This can result in irreversible sight loss.

Often, the patient will only become aware of any visual disturbance once significant damage has already occurred. Therefore, there is a need to develop techniques to allow for earlier detection and treatment of the condition.

4.9 million

people in the UK have diabetes


people have their sight seriously affected by diabetes every year

Finding a solution

Dr Emily Patterson, with support of a Moorfields Eye Charity springboard award, will test the effectiveness of high-resolution imaging and tools which assess the sensitivity of vision.

Patients will complete computerised tests which assess the sensitivity of rod and cone cells, including any loss of colour vision. Imaging will also be used to investigate the number and organisation of the rod and cone cells. These measures will be compared to characterise the pattern of structural damage and functional loss of these cells.

The team will also make comparisons with existing screening techniques to classify any predictive relationships with the severity of diabetes and diabetic retinopathy. Patients will return after six months to allow the researchers to assess changes over time.

The potential

The research will be the first study to systematically assess rod and cone loss in relation to changes in colour vision and visual sensitivity. The knowledge of the relationship between the structure and function of rods and cones may allow for earlier detection of the diabetic retinopathy, as well having possible uses in monitoring progression and treatment outcomes.

The findings also have the potential to provide valuable insights for other progressive retinal conditions.

This Springboard Award will enable us to systematically assess photoreceptor loss in relation to changes in colour discrimination and rod/​cone sensitivity for the first time. The nature of this relationship will not only provide valuable insights into the effects of photoreceptor loss on the mechanisms that underlie colour vision, but may also facilitate earlier detection of disease.”

Dr Emily Patterson

Project Details

Funding scheme

Springboard Award

Grant holder

Dr Emily Patterson

Area(s) of work

Diabetic retinopathy, Retinal/vitreo-retinal, Service improvement

Start date

May 2021

Grant reference